Anthropologist Killed in Afghanistan

Lorenz at Social and Cultural Anthropology in the News had an item last week about the case of Paula Loyd, an American anthropologist who recently died of injuries she suffered in a November attack. According to the Associated Press article about her death, Loyd had been “chatting with an Afghan man about fuel prices” when he suddenly doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. After the assailant had been subdued, one of Loyd’s colleagues — also an American — shot and killed him.

This case introduces an interesting set of questions about anthropology and war. For starters, Loyd was not simply an anthropologist, but she was an anthropologist working as a military contractor; as part of a so-called “Human Terrain Team,” Loyd was in Afghanistan, working with the US military to “understand local customs,” according to the AP. But what exactly does that mean? In what ways could the US military make use of anthropologists or social scientists to advance their interests/objectives in war? Looking back at the history of the discipline, it’s easy to see that anthropologists were often perceived by imperial nations as possibly “useful” in their efforts to conquer and colonize parts of Africa, Asia, or elsewhere. The United States used anthropologists in the Philippines, or political scientists in Vietnam, to try and gain advantages in those wars. Is this what’s happening here? Are anthropologists in Afghanistan merely serving as tools of conquest? Or are they perceived that way?

On the other hand, we also know that anthropologists often empathize to a great degree with the people they work with and the cultures they study, and they often try to ease conflict and advocate on behalf of the people they live with and know. So perhaps there’s a case to be made that more anthropologists might somehow bring about positive results in the midst of a difficult conflict.

Obviously, we’d need to know more about how these “Human Terrain Teams” operate and what they’ve tried to accomplish in Afghanistan. None of that might help us understand why Paula Loyd died, but it might answer the question of how effective people like Loyd might be in situations like this….


One Response

  1. […] and not so talented when it comes to advanced anthropology and sociology, in spite of its recent foray into that […]

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